Crackdown Helps Sustain Iran's Protest Movement

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Relatives of a victim of recent clashes in Iran hold his picture as they cry over the grave of Neda Agha-Soltan at a cemetery in Tehran

Crying "Death to the dictator!" supporters of Iran's opposition movement charged once more into the breach on July 30, defying a government ban on protests by gathering in the thousands at Iran's largest cemetery to honor slain victims of the government's crackdown. The protest was timed to coincide with the traditional Shi'ite practice of observing the 40th day of mourning following a death — the deceased in this case being Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose videotaped shooting at a June 20 demonstration against the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made her a global icon of Iran's protest movement. Despite the religious significance of the 40-day memorial, the government refused to issue permits for the gathering — a decision undoubtedly made with a mind on the events that led up to the 1979 Islamic revolution, when repeated 40-day cycles of martyrdom and memorial protests helped bring down the Shah's regime.

The current protest movement in Iran is unlikely to bring the regime crashing down, however. Massive government security deployments in Tehran have prevented the mustering of anything like the huge crowds that gathered after the June 12 election. And the government has rounded up dozens of opposition leaders (many of them once leading lights of the Islamic revolution) and stifled the opposition press.

But even as it suppresses protest activity, the government's harsh crackdown is breathing new life into the opposition movement and causing consternation even among conservatives, who have begun to criticize the government's heavy-handed tactics. The very fact that the opposition movement dared attempt the protest action on Thursday suggests that, almost seven weeks after the crackdown began, Iran's post-election political order is far from stabilized.

Stories of brutal killings and abuse of detainees by security personnel have begun emerging inside Iran, fueling a new cycle of anger. Some of the most heart-wrenching tales have involved families who claim that, upon receiving the bodies of their children killed in the protests, they were forced by government officials to sign statements attributing the deaths to disease or other natural causes, or to refrain from talking publicly about how their loved ones died.

Parvin Arabi looked like any other Iranian mother as she sat in front of the Tehran city council last week, testifying about her monthlong search for her son, 19-year-old Sorab, who disappeared on June 15, the day that hundreds of thousands of demonstrators filled Tehran. For a month, Arabi bounced between the courts, where officials said her son was in Evin prison, and the prison, where officials responded that her son was with the courts. Finally, Sorab's body turned up in police custody. A coroner reported that he died of a gunshot wound to the chest. The family said his body had signs of abuse. "He was just a 19-year-old child who hadn't fulfilled any of his hopes and dreams," Arabi said. "What did he want from the government but calm, peace and freedom of thought?"

The defiant courage of Sorab's mother and of demonstrators like those who turned out Thursday for Agha-Soltan are rallying support from across political lines. The Tehran city council — which provided the platform for Arabi to share her story — is controlled not by reformists but by conservative mayor Mohmmad Qalibaf. Iran's parliament last week announced the formation of a special committee to investigate allegations of abuse and secret detention of opposition supporters. Even Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei responded to mounting pressure from across the political spectrum for the release of detainees by announcing the closure of a notorious detention facility allegedly filled with opposition supporters.

A protest movement initially sparked by allegations of electoral fraud has morphed into a broad-based challenge to the crackdown it prompted and to what critics — some of them establishment conservatives — say is the government's growing tendency to ignore even its own laws. Many conservatives fear that the Islamic republic's traditional balance of power between clerical and elected bodies is being supplanted by the growing power of the security services. Earlier this week, a hard-line group close to parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani warned Ahmadinejad that he could be deposed if he ignores the country's religious leadership. Conservatives have also been angered by the government's plans to broadcast forced confessions of opposition demonstrators on state television.

But whether or not Iran's security services will back down remains to be seen. The public prosecutor's office said on July 28 that trials would begin on Aug. 1 for "rioters" arrested during street protests.

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